Sunday, November 25, 2007

I Am Not Talented

Just returned from a trip to Fort Worth, visiting my family, and incidentally my archive of Early Works, which lives in a storage unit down by the railroad tracks. The verdict is in: as a feckless young art student, I had No Talent. Yack. I mean it.

Mom and my aunt Prudence were splendid; they helped me haul the piles of cracked, crumbling, dusty, dirty, decaying artworks out of their tomb, unroll them, take vile snapshots with a digital camera for the Historical Record, and then pile them into a dumpster. I didn't throw away everything, just the extreme monstrosities that made me cringe in horror and shame. Actually I even saved one or two of those, as a reminder. They remind me, principally, to be kind.

Because I can't begin to describe how bad those student paintings were. Suffice it to say that I had no notion of color, composition, light, surface, paint quality, line quality, or conceptual content. My student work had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, except for a certain cheerful willingness to keep flinging paint around, in the absence of all external evidence that this process would lead somewhere fruitful.

Funnily enough, I don't find this revelation of my profound untalentedness to be the slightest bit depressing. Instead I feel an expansive sense of peace, liberation and connection. It's difficult to describe.

I'm not one of those PC egalitarians who thinks that talent is an elitist myth. It does exist, and I've seen it. There are people born with grace, skill, vision, and a discipline which expresses itself ceaselessly and without apparent effort; it is if they spent a thousand lifetimes in intensive practice and study, and were born into this body already possessing a mastery of medium and profundity of expression.

I repeat; I am not one of those people. I started off as a committed painter with nothing more than an overpowering sense that there were things I needed to learn through painting, and things I needed to express. I had only the vaguest idea what those things were; if I'd known, I wouldn't have needed to paint. I waged epic battles in defense of my right to be callow, immature and clueless. Anything I may have achieved in the way of worthwhile art has been done the hard way, through trial and error, discipline and practice, and sheer irrational pigheadedness.

Why does this give me such a sense of peace? Well, for starters, I'm no longer the slightest bit upset with all those faculties, arts organizations, committees, galleries and philanthropists who turned down my persistent applications. They were obviously people of taste who knew exactly what they were doing, and I commend them. I didn't need or deserve their help; any assistance from then would have only fed my unrealistically inflated notions of self.

Furthermore, I feel a warm sense of connection with the vast majority of humanity, also not born with the facility of a Mozart or a Barry McGee. Being perceived as 'gifted' sets you apart; it is isolating and chill. Much is expected of a talented person--success is regarded as automatic, and failure is received with exasperated contempt. Talented people are not judged by the standards of ordinary mortals. They are not expected to be kind, mature, ethical or friendly; if they are any of those things, it's a bonus.

When I expected myself to be talented, I also regarded myself with exasperated contempt, as a separate creature from the rest of humanity, where the usual standards did not apply. This was not a comfortable state of mind in which to exist.

Now I look back and think--well, I'm not talented. I just worked really hard. I worked to earn money, and practiced hard, and studied hard, and thought hard. I improved, really really slowly. I made a lot of messes and wasted a lot of time and money on dead ends, and picked out the one small thing I learned from that dead end and used it later on, to better effect. Now when I look around at how many people have paid good money to hang one of my paintings on their wall, and continue to enjoy it, and don't regret the money spent, I'm very proud of that. It was never a given that this would happen.

Now I look at my future, and think that I will continue doing this, without the burden of thinking that it has to be something special. If I create something beautiful, that will be a joy. If I don't, that's to be expected. I am not talented.


barak said...

Very thought provoking. I must chew on this for a few days...

Chris Rywalt said...

I find this very interesting also. I think it's taken me a good number of years to determine that I'm not really talented. I was always told I was talented, you see, but it never seemed to work out. Now I think it's because I'm not actually talented at all.

danonymous said...

Hey guys, I'll take persistent hard work coupled with intent over talent any day.

Chris Rywalt said...

A very good teacher of mine, Professor William Ondrick, loved to say to us, "There's no substitute for the work, not even genius."

Anonymous said...

As I change, and my interests change, and I explore new ways of painting, I'm not even sure that I understand what "talent" is anymore.

Kidist said...

Hey Pretty Lady, I just checked back to see how your work is doing. I think people want to be "geniuses", and it often gets in the way of their talent. I agree, hard work is essential, as well as technical training. But, if you want to be a Mozart, then your reach might just be too high.

Anyway, I don't even think Mozart thought in those terms.

Art-making is a tricky subject, still. But too much self-analysis isn't really good. Why not think in varying degrees of talent, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater?

SHEA said...

I think you're talented, and you are especially a good writer.

BoysMom said...

My experiences as a music teacher lead me to think that talent tends to be overrated: that is, the student who doesn't have to work much, in general, tends to not work at all. The student who has to work his fingers off, does, and ends up better than the first student. Obviously if the first student will do the work they will go further, but you get no results without labor, and most talented students get lazy simply because they can get away with it.
Who wants to be Mozart, anyway? Look at the guy's work schedule and how young he died! Much better to be Bach. Much more likely to be Cirri or some other who is now virtually unknown.

Jason Brockert said...

The definition of talent that I employ is that it defines what each of us does that we do easily. Much that is worthwhile in life happens when we overcome something of difficulty and struggle. Talent gets you to the starting point of whatever level you are at and hard work gets you to the end of your particular race.

We never know how hard those people that appear to have effortless talent really work and in sports you see this played out when that hard work usually propels athletes towards the top and those with a more talented base to the top.

k said...

I keep coming back to this post.

Only you can see those things inside yourself. But I simply cannot buy that you have no talent at all.

Not only that, I believe you must have it in spades.

That doesn't mean it was as accessible to you as it is to other talented people. Just as intelligence, and genius, are far less measurable by the standards in use, I think talent may be present but not *available* to everyone the same way.

It's not possible for you to turn out work of this quality without talent. All the discipline and hard work in the world could not have overcome a lack of talent and still produced these works.

Perhaps it's part of karma, that set of possibilities and of life lessons needing to be learned, that you were given the talent, but in a way that shielded it from early abuse. How very fortunate that is!

Tim Connor said...

I just came upon yr comments in Ed W & followed the link, so don't have much info. But there's no doubt at all that you're a very fine writer.

Robyn said...

Horror! The dumpster? Couldn't you salvage even the smallest glimmer of talent from each one to collage or a springboard for something else?I do know that feeling of wanting to destroy all those duds and I do throw out but first I will lop off a head or piece of pattern or something to add to a sculpture down the line.